In the lab before grad school

Undergraduate students often have to wait until graduate school before they get to take part in research projects, that is, if they go to grad school at all.

It shouldn’t be this way, according to University of Calgary administration, faculty and the Students’ Union, who are working together to increase the opportunities for undergrad students to engage in research, years before they even apply to grad school.

“Not that many students do research outside of the classroom,” noted SU vice-president academic Shannon O’Connor. “Though I don’t know exact numbers, I would say it’s not high enough. I think that any student who wants to do research in their undergraduate degree should be able to do it at least once.”

To showcase some of the research projects undergraduates have done over the past year, and to encourage more undergrads to get involved, the SU is hosting an undergraduate research symposium Wed., Nov. 29. The symposium will showcase research from faculties across campus with students doing poster and oral presentations.

To sweeten the deal, U of C administration has committed a prize of one semester’s tuition to the winning research project, as determined by a panel of judges. People can also vote for their favourite research project to receive the people’s choice award of one half-course of tuition.

There are obstacles to involving more students in research though, including professors’ time and hefty financial requirements, noted O’Connor.

“You have to pay the students,” said O’Connor. “It actually costs professors money to have a student in their lab.”

Despite the cost, the U of C is committed to increasing undergraduate research opportunities, said U of C research services director Dr. Martin Kirk, who helped to plan the SU symposium.

“We support this for very selfish reasons,” said Kirk. “It’s absolutely critical for us to do a very good job of engaging students. We need students to see research as an exciting career. We have a real demand and need to find PhDs.”

Over the next 10 years, the U of C predicts 50 per cent of current faculty will retire. Unfortunately, there are only enough PhDs to replace 30-40 per cent of the retirees, said Kirk.

Kirk admitted that his goal of getting all undergraduate students involved in research is lofty, but not impossible. He noted it is easier to find ways for a science student to engage in research than for a fine arts student.

“It will take us a long time to get to 100 per cent, but I think we can get to 80 per cent pretty easily,” said Kirk. “There are going to be areas where this is more difficult.”

Acting social science dean Dr. Doug Peers said social sciences prove undergraduate research has the potential to extend far beyond Bunsen burners and lab coats.

“In some of our disciplines, there is a lot of field research involved,” said Peers, noting departments like archaeology and geography have research field schools designed specifically for undergrads. “A lot of students are hired as summer students. They participate in and design experiments, and help to observe. A number of our researchers with grants hire undergrads.”

Even in departments like political science and history, which may not have field schools, honours programs allow students in-depth research in an area of interest to them, said Peers.

One project the university is working on is a central website to post all undergraduate research opportunities. Peers noted this will make it possible to track the total number of undergrads involved in research.


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